The political and social crisis that has erupted between the government of the Spanish state and the people of Catalonia has reached crisis point. Jonathan Hoff, who lives and works in Catalonia, has sent Dream Deferred a personal account of how the struggle for Catalan independence developed and its impact on the village he lives in.
1. Why did the Independence movement develop in Catalonia?
The people of Catalonia feel that they have been marginalised and used as a scapegoat by those in central government for their own political gain.
The two main Spanish parties are the Partido Popular – PP [A right wing conservative party, one of whose founders was a minister during Franco’s dictatorship] and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español – PSOE [A social democratic type party]. Catalonia is a Spanish autonomous community with a high level of self-government. The two main parties lose elections in Catalonia but win in the rest of Spain. People have seen the policies set out in the Catalonia independence parties’ manifestos – on schooling, healthcare and for a more open and accepting liberal society – be annulled by courts in Madrid.
The Estatut d’Autonomia de Catalunya (Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia) provides Catalonia’s basic institutional regulations under the Spanish Constitution of 1978. The power of the Estatut was initially reduced by the PSOE and has been severely weakened by the PP.
People continue to see a surreal social and political situation happening in Catalonia, whereby Madrid waits to see the elected government in Catalonia pass a new law and then decrees that it is unlawful and has the Constitutional Court annul it. The energy bill aimed at helping the poor was a prime example of this.
Before the elections in 2012, the PP went around Spain, drumming up support for their push for power in a big coach, very much like a big red coach in the Brexit campaign. Their campaign spread Catalanophobia in Andalucía, Extremadura, Murcia and other regions that receive a lot of subsidies to support their local economies. The PP claimed that the Catalans were greedy and didn’t want to help them. In 2012 the PP won the general elections in Spain and severely weakened the Estatut and cut back on funding for Catalonia.
A social disconnection in recent history happened at this point and, soon after, a new political party emerged in Catalonia to solve the problem of the PP’s waning position in the polls. Ciutadans [in Catalan] or Ciudadanos [in Spanish] (“Citizens” in English) is an effort to put a fresh face on the right wing and dress it up as a young modern, gay-friendly party. It is led by Alberto Rivera, who was educated in the Juventud Falangistas (Young Falangists), a fascist group idealising the late dictator Franco. This cover boy of the educated wealthy was totally disconnected from poorer Andalusian immigrants in the less well-to-do neighbourhoods in Barcelona.
Ciutadans’ spokesperson is now Inés Arrimadas, a 36 year-old Catalan speaking politician, born in Jeréz de la Frontera [a city in southern Spain’s Andalusia region]. The party is seen by a great majority of people I know as an anti-Catalan party.
I have a friend whose family is entirely Andalucian. They were encouraged to migrate to Catalonia for work and in doing so help guarantee Spanish control over the region. He has gone from being pro-unionist to becoming a voice for independence over the past few weeks. I have colleagues at work, who believed that the Ciutatans represented their unionist values, only to declare that this party is actually fighting against their Catalan identity. Everyone I know in my village, except for just one person, is in favour of independence. Some were more in favour of a more federal structure, advocating a sovereign nation within a federal Spain, while others were in favour of a totally independent state. Both groups are now solely in favour of the latter.
2. What is the mood of the people of Catalonia?
You can see and feel a community bound together in a struggle for freedom from a remote government in what would seem a distant country. When I moved to Catalonia, having lived in Madrid for eight years, I realised that I had moved to what for all intents and purposes was a different country, with a different language and a different more reserved culture. I quickly realised that I wasn’t in Spain.
At home I can hear the “cassarolades” ¬– pots and pans clanged by residents with wooden spoons – shattering the peace, protesting at 10 o’clock in the evening. Some might complain, but these people banging pots and pans are protesting about the injustice brought upon them. Some nights these “cassarolades” continue for up to 40 minutes. How is this going to change anyone’s decision in Madrid? It isn’t, but it is going to tell your neighbours that you feel that something should be done.
On the streets people gather to protest in the village I live in. A loud chorus of “Independència” rings out across the village. Shops close. Some shops didn’t on the day a national strike was called, but then pickets were formed and then they closed peacefully. The employees wanted to join the protests in favour of independence but their managers wanted them to stay. All my neighbours were involved in the protests, all were there on 1 October at the polling stations [on the day of the Catalan independence referendum].
The violence on voting day was shocking, particularly as the civil guard beat villagers of nearby Sant Iscle, Dosrius, and Sant Cebrià. I know some of the victims. These are peaceful people who might have even voted in favour of the union. I cannot begin to understand the logic behind the police brutality, unless it is to create chaos in the entire region.
3. What is the Spanish state’s reaction to the independence movement?
People say that Mariano Rajoy [Spain’s prime minister and PP leader] has been the independence movement’s biggest recruiter. The Spanish government has decided to crush the independence movement in a particularly heavy-handed and brutal manner. No “better together” slogans – just “do or die”.
Undercover civil guards are infiltrating communities. People are intimidated by others watching and listening to their conversations in bars and restaurants. A friend of mine is sure that they were being filmed. Perhaps this is paranoia, perhaps not. With surveillance, people are even more galvanised in their will to move forward and away from Madrid’s reach.
People say that Franco’s nephews and nieces, granddaughters and grandsons are in charge in Madrid right now, so it’s difficult to see how another more diplomatic solution could be found. Spain is definitely very different to what they want you to believe.
4. Do working class Spanish migrants living in Catalonia support the struggle for independence?
Two of the most important Spanish immigrant groups living in Catalonia are from Extremadura (a Spanish region in the West of Spain) and Andalusia [the most southern region of Spain]. Many original immigrants do not support independence, but their children do. The PP have councillors in Badalona, a poor area just north of Barcelona, where many immigrants live and still feel Spanish and show it with their flags, even with the fascist eagle emblem depicted on it rather than the standard royal crescent. Many poor Catalans live elsewhere and either supported Catalan sovereignty within a Federal Spain or full independence – both groups are now only supporting full independence. The PP’s heavy-handed approach has polarised the country.
5. In Britain we see lots of images of fascists in the streets opposing Catalonia’s independence. Are they a threat?
The problem in Spain is that the far right have always been in and around power over the last 40 years of so-called democracy in Spain. Let’s not forget that the PP was formed from the Alianza Popular (Popular Alliance), which emerged from the Falange (Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalist – the only legal party under Franco). This sole party was dissolved in Adolfo Suarez’s 1977 transition [to democracy after Franco’s rule]. However, its members lived on and continued in and around power.
Fascism is perfectly legal in Spain and is promoted by some influential people. Let’s not forget that Ciutadans’s Rivera was in the young Falangists and is one of Catalonia’s most vocal opponents. On pro-Spanish state protests people have sung the fascist song “Caras al sol” and make Nazi salutes and see nothing wrong with it. The government is very authoritarian, uses forcible suppression of its opposition. It controls industry by forcing companies to move headquarters away from Catalonia, thus reducing economic growth for the region, and it is opposed to the liberal democratic political system espoused in Catalonia. Fascism is a very real threat.
6. Where next for the struggle?
The Spanish civil war was started in much the same circumstances. I hope this does not happen. I am very worried about the future.